The US Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) revealed apparel imports for January 2024 were 24.2bn square metre equivalent (SME), which is 21.0% lower than the comparative period.

Honduras saw the biggest jump in shipment volume in January 2024 compared to January 2023. Shipments from the Central American country into the US rose by 27.5% to 42m per SME, versus 33m SME in January 2023.

Honduras also saw a rise in shipment value during the period. It was a sizeable increase of 22.4% from $1.2bn in January 2023, compared to $1.5bn in January 2024.

US apparel import January numbers in brief

  • Indonesia experienced the biggest fall in apparel shipment volumes for the period out of the top ten biggest importers with a 37.2% drop to 71m SME for January 2024 versus 112m SME in January 2023.
  • This was followed by Bangladesh, which saw a decline of 34% in volume terms from 266m SME in January 2023 versus 176m SME in January 2024.
  • Mexico saw the next largest fall in shipment volumes of 22.8% to 42m SME in January 2024.
  • Import volumes from India fell 19.9% to 95m SME from 119m SME and this was closely followed by Pakistan with a 18.1% drop to 52m SME from 64M SME in January 2023.
  • Cambodia experienced a fall of 9.5% to 79m SME for the period.
  • Nicaragua saw a drop of 5.3% in volume terms from 50m SME in January 2023 to 47m SME in January 2024.
  • Vietnam enjoyed a 0.5% increase in shipment volume in January 2023 (343m SME) versus January 2024 (345m SME).
  • China saw its shipment volume increase 13.5% to 790m SME from 696m SME.
  • Honduras saw the biggest growth in volume terms over the year with a 27.5% increase to 42m SME from 33m SME.

Dr Sheng Lu, associate professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University Delaware points out that, as US consumers remain prudent in clothing spending against the current economic environment, the volume of US apparel imports has not yet recovered.

“Specifically, US apparel imports in January 2024 were about 7.6% lower in quantity and 16.5% lower in value from a year ago. Seasonally adjusted imports in January 2024 also decreased by 4.5% from a year ago and marginally went up by 0.2%, mainly due to higher prices,” he explained.

Dr Lu also notes that considering the predicted slower US economic growth in 2024, the US apparel import volume could stay stagnant for some time.

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A winning or losing year for China?

Despite the US’ ongoing drive to diversify apparel sourcing away from China, the region still saw the second biggest increase in shipment volume during the period compared to the same period a year earlier.

China enjoyed a volume rise of 13.5% from 696m SME in January 2023 compared to 790m SME in January 2024.

Lu emphasises this was compared to a negative 7.6% growth in the world average, leading to China achieving a 39.7% market share — a nearly 7.4 percentage point increase from a year ago.

China also enjoyed a 2.0% increase in shipment value of $1.41bn in January 2024, compared to $1.44bn in January 2023.

He suggests China’s January 2024 apparel import growth could elevate the risks associated with sourcing from the country, and states: “Even for the most controversial cotton apparel, in January 2024, China accounted for 15.5% of US apparel imports (it was 11.9% in January 2023) in value and 23.9% in quantity (it was 18.1% in January 2023).”

Notably, Lu adds the surge of US apparel imports from China was accompanied by a notable decline in the price of ‘Made in China.’

The unit price of US apparel imports from China fell substantially from $2.25/SME in 2019 to $1.78/SME in January 2024 (or down 20.8%). Over the same period, the unit price of US apparel imported from the rest of the world increased from $3.54/SME to $3.85/SME (or up 8.9%).

“These contrasting and unusual trends provide narratives that could be used to justify a tougher US policy stance on China: one is that with a weak domestic economy, China is increasingly ‘dumping’ cheap products to the world, threatening the survival of the US textile industry and garment suppliers in other countries.

“Second, the Section 301 tariffs didn’t result in inflation as previously worried. Thus, it seems unlikely that the current US trade barriers for products from China will be removed anytime soon. Instead, new trade restrictions could be imposed, further intensifying bilateral trade relations,” Dr Lu said.

A challenging year for Bangladesh

Bangladesh continued to lose momentum as a supplier, largely due to structural issues, Lu suggested.

Specifically, he shares that in January 2024 US apparel imports from Bangladesh decreased by 36.5% in value and 34% in quantity from a year ago. The country fared much worse than other top ten suppliers to the US market.

Dr Lu said: “The efforts of US fashion companies to reduce their overstock in the past year could disproportionately affect imports from Bangladesh, given the country’s role in primarily supplying basic large-volume items.”

On the other hand, he continued: “While Bangladesh mostly provides cotton-made knitwear, the implementation of the UFLPA [Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act] unintentionally led some US fashion companies to reduce cotton apparel imports and switch to clothing with a higher content of man-made fibres.”

Why Honduras is US nearshoring country to watch

Honduras stood out as January 2024’s star after enjoying a rise of 27.5% in volume terms and a rise of 22.4% in value terms.

Its overall market share in terms of US apparel sourcing importance remains small at 2.1% (YTD) but it has increased from a 1.5% market share in 2022 (YTD).

Plus, Patricia Figueroa, Central America–Dominican Republic Apparel and Textile Council (CECATEC-RD)’s executive director told Just Style during an exclusive interview last year that a growth of even 1% is “exponential” for sourcing countries in the Central American region.

Many fashion brands and retailers are looking at Honduras and other Central American countries as an alternative to sourcing fashion from China given the region’s proximity to the US and the benefits of the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

As Figueroa explained: “We know speed to market is one of our most important advantages. On a two-hour plane you’re in Miami; it’s three to five days to bring goods via boat and we can maximise that if we become more agile, so everyone is working toward that objective.”

The clothing and textile industry remains the leading export sector in Honduras according to the Honduran Association of Manufacturers (AHM -Asociación Hondureña de Maquiladores), the country’s key clothing and textile industry group.

In August last year the country benefitted from a $2m grant to develop a textile training programme in Honduras.

The US’ nearsourcing push also benefitted Honduras’ neighbours in 2023. For example, Nicaragua enjoyed a market share of 2.4% in 2023 compared 2.3%.

Sitting just outside of the US’ top 10 apparel importers list, both Guatemala and El Salvador saw their market share going up to 1.4% from 1.2% in 2023.

Figueroa is under no illusion that Central America could ever overtake China altogether because of the difference in scale, its incredibly low prices and its ability to offer a much wider range of goods. But she told Just Style since 2020 the CAFTA region has benefitted from new investments aimed at strengthening its apparel production base.

However, Figueroa also pointed out fashion brands and retailers are being scrutinised on what comes into the US from Asia, given concerns over forced labour being used to make cotton.

As a result, Figueroa sees Central America’s integrated supply chain as a real selling point: “Most of our cotton and yarns comes from the US as part of the yarn-forward rule. Our region is small so it’s easy for us to know all the players so we encourage brands and retailers to factor all these benefits into their accounts.”